I have been following many of Nairobi People’s Settlement Network’s (NPSN) activities and sharing as much as I could about this incredible group (see blog entries A Living Saint, Eviction Task Force, and People’s Settlements, Not Slums). Now I’d like to highlight its current chairman, Humphrey Otieno Oduor, a man with an incredible story. Few people are able to go through what Humphrey has faced in his life and still manage to successfully dedicate their lives to social justice and equality.
Raised in Makongeni Estate in Nairobi, Humphrey moved to the people’s settlement (slum) of Kiambiu in 1996. After the passing of his father, his family was forced to vacate their home, as was the policy for the railway parastatal premise where his father’s job allowed them to live. Humphrey was forced to drop out of school and get a job. Like so many others had discovered, work was nearly impossible to find. Most people in the settlements make a living any way they can, selling secondhand items or food for pennies. Humphrey was desperate to provide for his family (6 of them after his father’s death), so he turned to the only possibility he saw: crime.
For years, Humphrey led a life of drug peddling, robberies, and carjacking. After losing more than 70 friends during that time, he could not bear to be involved in that life any longer. He finished high school and worked as a van conductor. The conditions in the settlements that had caused him to get involved in crime motivated him to advocate for change. He and other youth in his area joined hands to address issues affecting residents living in the settlement by forming a group known as Kiambiu Youth, focusing on environmental advocacy. With the help of various non-governmental organizations like Hakijamii, Humphrey was involved in the formation of NPSN in 2004. He is now the chairman of NPSN in addition to working for the National Youth Violence Prevention Network, both volunteer positions.
Telling Humphrey’s story has caused me to reflect on the situation here in Kenya and the developing world more broadly. Nairobi is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, violence and insecurity an every day part of life for those in the slums. What causes these high levels of crime and violence? It’s not an easy question, and one that experts have been contemplating for years. It is not poverty by itself, as there are many impoverished countries that are peaceful and have low crime rates (i.e. Mali, where I lived for 2 years). Rather, it seems to occur when there are high numbers of impoverished people living in substandard conditions very near those who have plenty, which many Kenyans do. There is a lot of economic opportunity in Kenya, one of the main reasons for the large increase in the urban populations. Millions of people never make it to the Kenyan middle-class, though they see that life dangling right in front of them.
Humphrey wishes to see NPSN grow but not lose sight of its mission, as happens too often when donors begin contributing to a solid community organization. He hopes that people will continue to pressure the government to adopt adequate housing and land policies, as well as proper eviction guidelines.
To quote a short film I recently saw, Kibera Kid, “No matter how bad things get, you always have a choice.” Humphrey, to the benefit of many people and to Kenya, has made the right choice.
Posted By Christy Gillmore
Posted Aug 2nd, 2010